The Los Angeles Unified School District school board has announced that all public school students will be taught about Arizona’s new immigration law. Members, however, appear to want the law taught as an example of an un-American and racist law. In a unanimous vote, the board has asked schools to incorporate the lesson as part of their civics classes. I agree with the board that this is an appropriate subject for discussion some classes, but (even as a critic of the law) I have serious concerns over teaching students that such a law is “Un-American.”
Recently, I was asked to review the decision of the Township High School in Illinois to bar travel to Arizona for the girl’s basketball championship. The decision was, in my view, based on flawed constitutional analysis and appeared more like a boycott — a political decision. I have the same concerns here. There are obviously parents who agree and disagree with this law. Indeed, over sixty percent of people polled support the law and roughly half want their own states to adopt a similar law.
The concern is not over the merits of the law but the use of public schools to advance a political viewpoint. The Board voted unanimously on Tuesday to “express outrage” and “condemnation” of the law. That is arguably a legitimate expression from Board members. However, it went further to demand (as stated in a press release) that “[t]he Los Angeles Board of Education also requested that Superintendent Ramon Cortines ensure that civics and history classes discuss the recent laws with students in the context of the American values of unity, diversity and equal protection for all people.” That would also seem an appropriate lesson plan.
The controversy erupted over comments of the board members that accompanied these instructions. Board President Monica García explained the purpose behind this latter provision: “America must stand for tolerance, inclusiveness and equality. In our civics classes and in our hallways, we must give life to these values by teaching our students to value themselves; to respect others; and to demand fairness and justice for all who live within our borders. Any law which violates civil rights is un-American.”
School District spokesman Robert Alaniz further stated:
“The Board of Education directed the Superintendent to ensure that LAUSD civics and history classes discuss the recent laws enacted in Arizona in the context of the American values of unity, diversity, and Equal Protection for all. Much like a number of controversial periods and laws that are part of our history and are currently taught including:
— Jim Crowe laws and segregation
— Native American reservations
— Residential schools (for Native Americans)
— The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
— Anti-Irish racism in the 19th century
— Racism against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe in the 20th century
— Internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II
— The Mexican Repatriation Program (1929-1939).”
I have long supported schools incorporating such public issues into civics discussion to tie foundational principles to contemporary examples. Arizona’s law could make for some interesting debate and thought-provoking questions. However, only if it is taught in a neutral way and elicits discussion on both perspectives — not just opposition to the law. The message from the board appears to be that the classes should characterize the law as akin to racism and anti-Semitism. That would seem more like indoctrination than education.
This may not be the intention of the Board and it is important to note that the instruction itself did not include loaded or partisan language. However, the Board should issue clear guidelines for teachers to address the law in an even-handed way and to engage the students in a discussion of both sides of the controversy. Board members are free to denounce the law in their individual capacity, but these members would be presumably aggrieved if Arizona schools were instructed to teach that the law was the embodiment of all that is right and correct about America. Even the Administration (which is planning to challenge the law) has said that it does not view the law as racist. Los Angeles children should discuss the law not only on its merits but also as an example of how our political and judicial process addresses such controversies. There is a difficult line in teaching such subjects between ideology and education. However, when done correctly, it can be highly rewarding. I often take positions in my graduate classes that are diametrically opposed to views of my students to challenge them and to get them to consider alternative perspectives.
I assume that the Board was thinking along the same lines, but it should clarify the matter for teachers who are the “boots on the ground” for our educational system.
For the story, click here.